If there’s something that you want to hear, you can sing it yourself.
— Gillian Welch, “Everything Is Free”
Gillian Welch is almost right. I can and do sing that line, with its sad downward inflection, myself: in defiance of the bright and busy morning on Broadway, or reheating lentil soup in the evening alone. It’s a line that baptizes my solitude with a note of self-love, of proud self-sufficiency, without requiring me to feel less wistful, less rueful, less wounded. But when I sing it’s not the same as when she sings. Her voice is unfiltered honey, it flows slow, and her guitar picks an alternative path through her pain, the muscle memory of the chords always one step ahead of her hard-won words. I have no guitar. If there’s something that I want to hear, I can’t sing it myself, quite, so it’s really the words that stay mine, and that I quote when someone asks me what poetry’s for: “If there’s something that you want to hear, you can sing it yourself.”
Where did the music go? My mother likes to say, “You listen for lyrics, I listen for melody.” And it’s true that I’m a nonstop party trick. It’s not so much that I’m good at burning through a rap track when it comes on at the club—I’m strong in my bracket (female, white-presenting) but a tricky flow (Kendrick Lamar, Big Boi) is hard for me to ride. It’s what goes on outside the club. I have a line at hand for every mood. Sometimes it’s Bob Dylan when I’m drawing blood on a writing deadline: “Beauty walks a razor’s edge, someday I’ll make it mine.” On Tinder, it’s Jay Z: “Sensitive thugs, y’all all need hugs.” In moments of self-sabotage it’s also Jay: “An appetite for destruction but I scrape the plate.” Existential distress is Biggie: “I know my mother … don’t even love me like she did when I was younger / Suckin’ on her chest just to stop my fuckin’ hunger.” And always, every morning, dizzy with the northern light I can’t bring myself to black out, it’s Whitney: “How will I know? How will I know? How will I know? How will I know?”
The music is still there, the ghost in the machine of my quotation. I can’t get those harmonies out of my head. It’s not that I don’t hear the music, or that it’s secondary to the words with their promise of meaning, or that I don’t want to hold onto it all, the 808s, the horn solo, the catch in the breath. I try. In fact, I’m wired up almost always: on the subway, walking to class. Reading, even. But being wired up—grateful as I am for my infinite mixtape, my pocket-sized brain—is a kind of spiritual life support. I don’t feel I have Joni Mitchell’s “California” when she’s in my earbuds. After all, she’s just streaming. Queen of the (Spotify) Slipstream: “Will you take me as I am, strung out on another man”? Plugged in on another app?